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Published: Friday, 3/26/2010

Toledo homeless garden takes root

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A small group of Toledo-area businesses started a vegetable garden yesterday next to the Cherry Street Mission, hoping to bring the city's haves and have-nots together and dispel some myths about homelessness.

While nobody expects a carrot here or an ear of sweet corn there to heal a homeless person's wounds - to relieve them of their constant hunger or reverse their bad luck - those involved with the project envision it as a relationship builder, promoting the Christian ideal of empathy for fellow man while defraying costs for the downtown mission at 105 17th Street.

"The concept is we're all family," said Duke Wheeler, who owns a Christmas tree farm, butterfly house, shrimping operation, and corn maze in Whitehouse.

Mr. Wheeler and about a dozen other people braved a steady downpour of rain yesterday to clear concrete rubble and unusable dirt from a lot where the garden will go. Seeds will be planted around Mother's Day, after the threat of frost is gone, he said.

"The community is in rough shape now. If we all work together, we can turn it around," he said. "We've got to help the weakest people to get back into society."

The idea for the garden was hatched less than 48 hours earlier by Mr. Wheeler, retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick, and Jim Johns, EarthScience Foundation founder.

Mr. Wheeler said he was amazed by the immediate response he got from local businesses - Klumm Bros., Jennite Co., Schoen Builders, MacQueen Orchards, Toledo Grows among them - to lend a hand or a piece of machinery. The city of Toledo chipped in by promptly finding landfill space for six loads of dirt that were hauled away, he said.

About eight or nine men from the mission helped clear garbage from the site between the mission and its transitional housing.

One of them, Mark Keenan, 47, who moved into the mission about six weeks ago after losing his job at United Parcel Service, said he was "pretty surprised and somewhat delighted" to hear about the gardening plans.

"Idle hands are no good to anybody," Mr. Keenan said. "At least these guys will have something to look forward to. It gets them outside and gives them some self-worth. We're not afraid to get our hands dirty."

Although planning is still in its early stages, organizers expect a garden in which community volunteers will work the site with mission residents.

Much of the food will go to the mission to help defray its costs. But a fair amount will be set aside for a street-side farmer's market, the proceeds of which would be used to support mission programs, Mr. Wheeler said.

Today, work begins on a chicken coop. Those tending to the garden also will help raise chickens, he said.

Area greenhouses are donating plants and seed for the garden.

"Some don't even know they'll be doing that yet," Mr. Wheeler mused.

Rodney Schuster, Cherry Street's vice president of development, said he's amazed how quickly it all came together, especially in an age when projects seem to get held up by bureaucracy.

"Two days ago, this was just a conversation," he said.

A fence will be erected to keep trespassers off seed beds and to deter vandalism, Mr. Schuster said.

He said he's touched by the gesture, especially considering the region's hard economic times.

"To have somebody in the community come forward and say 'I want to help' is just a godsend," Mr. Schuster said.

Right now, the lot looks like a patch of dirt. By midsummer, it should resemble a garden.

But it always will be seen as a lot more by people who work and reside at the Cherry Street Mission - a sign that everyone matters, that hard work and hope can produce results, Mr. Schuster said.

"They're people like you and I," Mr. Schuster said, referring to the mission's clients. "Things like this tell them, 'You care about me,'•" he said. "Perhaps this is the spark that turns their life around."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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